The Heritage of Buddhist Paintings
@ Traveling Exhibition Service (TES) / Canada
By Daya Hewapathirane Ph.D
“Nations are made by artists and poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art - the art of living”. - Ananda Coomaraswamy
Paintings of the Sinhala People
Paintings, sculpture, architecture, and other forms of fine arts were used profusely in Sri Lanka, from very early times to express Buddhist ideas and sentiment. The exceptionally rich heritage of visual arts of the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka extends to a period that exceeds 2300 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the 21st CE. (Sinhala is the dominant community of Sri Lanka from historic times). Paintings form a dominant component of this heritage. A spectacular collection of ancient sculpture and architecture further adorns the island’s culture. They are conspicuous elements of the island’s Buddhist culture.
Buddhism, which was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, was the primary source of inspiration and influence for artists, sculptors and architects of the country. The life of the Buddha, Jataka Tales based on former lives of the Buddha, and the teachings of the Buddha were the predominant themes of ancient artistic pursuits including paintings.
The classical style of Sinhala art is naturalistic, exemplifying a transformation of nature by imaginative contemplation. Paintings show a highly tasteful use of a variety of colours and a skilful depiction of facial expressions of the figures.
Ancient secular paintings are also characterized by a strong spiritual predisposition, and are of great aesthetic appeal. Most are considered as masterpieces of human creative ingenuity and imagination. The outstanding quality of these ancient paintings was a determining factor in the identification of World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka by the UNESCO.
According to the UNESCO, 1037 Buddhist temples with paintings older than a 100 years, have been discovered in Sri Lanka.
Art Traditions and Themes
The evolution of different art traditions reflects a subtle blending of several styles, techniques and approaches, unique to Sri Lanka. A fascinating array of symbols and symbolic expressions are used in these artistic pursuits.
Themes of most paintings are based on the life and teachings of the Buddha and on Jataka tales or tales of previous lives of the Buddha. In particular, paintings of the Classical period reveal the great adoration the artists had towards the Buddha, and the strong inspiration drawn from the Buddha’s life and teachings. Simplicity, clarity and above all, restraint in composition and expression are characteristic features of all ancient Sinhala art inspired by Buddhism. Paintings with secular themes are indicative of socio-cultural characteristics of the period.
Spiritual Component of Buddhist Paintings
It is common observation that most Buddhists visiting Buddhist shrines, even ancient historic sites with masterpieces of Buddhist paintings, rarely take time to have a closer look at the paintings. The normal practice is to place flowers in front of Buddha images, recite ‘gathas’ for varying periods of time, and walk away from the shrine room. Few, if at all, realize the incredible spiritual fulfillment one could derive by paying more closer attention to what is found often most strikingly, on the walls and other surfaces of Buddhist shrines.
Most Buddhist paintings when examined closely, with patience and care, have a strong impact on ones inner spirit. They often help to generate calm and peaceful feelings. Judging from such inner transformations, one realizes that some of these paintings are not artistic products done merely for the sake of art. There is something more to them. They are reflective of the deeper thoughts and emotions of the artist, generated by the overflowing inspiration derived from the themes of the artistic pursuit. The primary focus of these themes is the Buddha and his teachings, the various incidences of the life of the great person and the fathomless depth of his teachings. Most Buddhist artistic creations are symbolic of such deep forms of inspiration. They are reactions to the spiritual surges that the artist has experienced through the veneration of the Buddha. They are reactions to the awakening that he has been able to experience through the Dhamma or the teachings of the Buddha. They reflect the extent to which the artist’s mind has been overtaken by feelings of compassion and equanimity.
The powers of the faculty of sight are often taken for granted and are not fully made use of by most people, for purposes of inner growth and spiritual awakening or enrichment. It appears that ancient Buddhists have made good use of the power of the faculty of sight to attain Buddhist objectives such as calming ones mind and bringing about a sense of inner peace and joy. The power of the faculty of sight is a dominant force and often forms the basis of not only artistic creativity, but also of the appreciation of art and inspiration drawn from art. It greatly facilitated the development of mindfulness or attentiveness- “samma sati”.
Ancient works of Buddhist art transcends artistic and aesthetic appreciation and appeal, to something higher and deeper. They have the effect of awakening and enlightening, taking one onto a spiritual realm with deep feelings of compassion or ‘maithree’ and equanimity, a realm where mental tranquility prevails. When one is patiently engrossed in classical Buddhist paintings, one finds that they leap off rock and wall surfaces and into your inner-self, transforming your mind to a state of innocence and overflowing compassion, joy and peacefulness. According to the Buddha’s teachings, developing tranquility of mind is fundamental to the development of wisdom.
World Heritage Sites
The large majority of Buddhist paintings are found in Buddhist Vihara (shrines or temples) and monasteries, the best known are located in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Mahanuwara (Kandy). These five historic sites have been designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, owing to their artistic treasures, which are considered masterpieces of human creative genius.
Several Surfaces and Layers
Paintings were done on several surfaces - rock, wall, ceiling, sculpture, other structures within buildings including wooden building fixtures such as doors, ceilings, and pillars, textile, earthenware and pottery. Statues and associated structures within buildings were painted vibrantly. Among the oldest paintings are those on rock surfaces in caves, and in relic chambers inside dagabos (stupa or pagoda). Paintings on wooden surfaces are found mostly on ceilings and doors of Buddhist shrines, ola manuscript covers, screens, boxes used to store sacred objects. In Godapitiya Raja Maha Vihare and Kadurugahamaditta Gangarama vihare are two large wooden boxes with the Dhahamsonda Jataka painted on both. There are numerous literary references to the practice of painting on cloth in Sri Lanka, from as early as the second century BC to the nineteenth century. Cloth paintings are known as “pethikada”. They provide magnificent examples of the Mahanuwara style of paintings. Dambawa vihare in the Matale district and Araththana vihare Vishnu Devale in Hanguranketa possess some exquisite pethikada paintings.
In the past, during temple restorations, new paintings were drawn on plaster applied over old paintings. Wall peelings in most old temples have revealed two or more underlying layers of ancient paintings.
Hidden Paintings and Reproductions
The relic chambers and surfaces inside ancient dagabos were lavishly decorated with paintings in ancient times. Some of these (Mihintale, Mahiyangana, Dadigama) were discovered during times of excavations and dagabo restorations and some of these paintings have been reproduced on canvass by modern artists. These reproductions can be seen in the Museums of Colombo, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Mahanuwara.
Little is known of the artists of ancient times especially on artists before the 18th century. Some information is available on artists of the Mahanuwara period, among them were a few Buddhist monks. Although ancient Sinhala artists drew inspiration from Indian creations, they did not accept Indian traditions and concepts in their entirety. Deeply inspired by Buddhism, the Sinhala artists invented and incorporated their own artistic and iconographical elements into their art.
Influenced by their inner spiritual emotions and discipline, they developed their own expressions, approaches and styles which resulted in a unique artistic tradition, and a range of artistic creations that are characteristic to Sri Lanka.
According to Professor Albert Dharmasiri of the Faculty of Aesthetic Studies of Kelaniya University of Sri Lanka, “The genius of anonymous painters transferred the rugged rock surfaces and the flat walls of the Buddhist shrines into epics of colour and figurative forms for the spiritual joy and edification of the devotees.”
During the 18th - 19th centuries, and most probably in the earlier centuries also, there were families of artists with their own traditions and techniques of art. There were traditional schools of art or groups of artists headed by a well-known prominent artist. These schools were referred to as “Gurukula”. There were generations of artists in each gurukula. There were several such gurukula groups during the 18th-19th centuries or during the Mahanuwara period of art. Each gurukula developed and followed their own art forms and techniques. This is well reflected in temples such as Degaldoruwa, Ridee Viharaya, Dambawa, Medawela and Hindagala where several traditions and styles of paintings are evident.
On rock and wall surfaces, paintings were executed on a layer (coat) of plaster. The material used to make these layers of plaster were natural, mostly obtained from the immediate environment. Among the natural products commonly used were clay, usually a white gritty clay called “makul”, and also powdered rocks such as granite, quartz and feldspar. For pigments used on these plus on other surfaces such as wood, textile and earthenware, crushed leaves, saps, paddy husks, oils, vegetal secretions, and adherent substances collected from trees such as “jak”, “kekuna”, “divul” and “dorana” were used. Lamp black and ask from burnt cotton and coral were also used. Some of these products were boiled and processed in different ways in order to obtain the necessary shades and colours. A wide range of colours were derived by a system of blending basic colours. A specially made oily material was applied over completed paintings as a protective coat, which also helped to enhance the brightness of colours. This was a form of varnish, often made with powdered “dummala” or rosin mixed with boiled “dorana” oil. Vegetal matter was used to make brushes used in painting along with cats and squirrels hair.
Conservation Through Reproduction of Ancient Paintings
Several modern artists and photographers have contributed to the conservation of ancient paintings that were disintegrating, by producing near-perfect reproductions on canvass and some commendable photographic reproductions. S.P. Charles and L.T.P. Manjusri are prominent among these artists. Their reproductions are exhibited in several Public Museums in Sri Lanka. Manjusri won the prestigious Ramon Magsasay Award for his contribution to preserving ancient paintings. He was keen on copying and preserving paintings that were disintegrating and decaying owing to impact of natural forces and human interventions. The paintings that he was able to reproduce from Vevurukannala and Pathegama Temples and the Karambagala Cave no longer exist. They are considered to be among the best and priceless tracings of ancient paintings by Manjusri.
Photographic Reproductions: Gamini Jayasinghe
Gamini Jayasinghe is the best known among those involved in reproducing photographically the heritage of Buddhist paintings in Sri Lanka. His extraordinary photographs of both ancient and modern Sinhala Buddhist paintings are a lasting contribution for the preservation and promotion of Sinhala art in Sri Lanka.
In 1979, the Lever Brothers Cultural Conservation Trust (LBCT) commissioned Jayasinghe to produce a photographic documentation of Buddhist temple paintings. Traveling extensively around the country, he photographed murals of forty temples, some located in deep jungle. Among them was the Pulligoda cave temple and Gonagolla temple in Amparai which date back to 7th - 8th century and others belonging to the 18th-19th centuries. Photographs were taken in a scientific way so that they could be enlarged and assembled to produce near perfect life-size representations or reproductions of the actual Vihara paintings.
His exhibition of photographic reproductions of ten vihares, in the year 1982, was a sensation. Here, the highlight was a colour photo presentation of the Thelapath Jatakaya detailed on an entire wall made to the exact size of the mural wall in Mulgirigala vihare. It is seen at present at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo.
Most of his documentation is stored at the National Archives Department. Jayasinghe’s personal collection exceeds 10,000 colour negatives and transparencies. He has hotographed twenty more temples in addition to the forty he did for LBCT. Some of the murals he photographed no longer exist – Walalgoda in Panamure has collapsed. In the Dodanduwa Sailabimbaramaya, the painting surface has peeled off in many places. The photographs of these paintings are therefore of great value. In some cases, the originals can be reproduced or touched up using these photographic reproductions.
Jayasinghe has been a professional photographer for over forty years. His products can be seen in many publications including those of Senaka Bandaranayake and Venerable Narada. In the making is a new book titled “Ancient Buddhist Art Galleries of Sri Lanka”, featuring his photographs of the Dambulla temple. His extraordinary photographs of the Bellanwila vihare, form an integral part of a highly acclaimed book released on March 2003. Titled “Bellanvila Murals”, this book is a product of Professor Albert Dharmasiri of the faculty of Aesthetic Studies of Kelaniya University.
Major Periods of Art
Based on general differences in art traditions, the 2200 year long period of art history of Sri Lanka has been subdivided into the following sub-periods:
(a) Anuradhapura Period....... 3rd century BCE to 10th century AD
(b) Polonnaruwa Period.........11th to mid 13th century AD
Period of Changing Capitals...mid 13th to 17th century AD
Mahanuwara Period..............18th to 19th century AD
Modern Period......................20th century AD Onwards
The Classical Period
The classical style of Sinhala art of Sri Lanka is naturalistic, exemplifying a transformation of nature by imaginative contemplation. Paintings show a highly tasteful use of a variety of colours and a skillful depiction of facial expressions of the figures. Ancient paintings of the classical form of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and several other places are of overflowing aesthetic appeal. Most are considered as masterpieces of human creative ingenuity and imagination. The outstanding quality of these paintings was a determining factor in the identification of World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka by the UNESCO.
Anuradhapura was the Capital City of the Sinhala Kingdom for about 1300 years. Paintings and fragments of motifs of outstanding artistic quality belonging to this period, are found not only in the Anuradhapura region but also in several other parts of the country. Buddhist values are explicit in these paintings, not only in the themes portrayed, but also in their decorative aspects such as symbols, motifs, designs, shapes, colours and shades. The well-known Sigiriya paintings represent the earliest surviving examples of a Sri Lanka school of classical realism, already fully evolved by the 5th century, when these paintings were executed. Sigiriya reflects the highly imaginative and spectacular artistic and architectural traditions of the Sinhala people.
Polonnaruwa was the Capital City of the Sinhala Kingdom for about 300 years. Like Anuradhapura, this city contains highly developed forms of ancient rock sculpture, architecture, paintings and engineering marvels. Thematically and stylistically Polonnaruwa paintings are considered to represent a landmark in the history of Buddhist paintings in Sri Lanka. Those of the Tivanka Pilimage are of particular significance. The distribution of the subject matter in the murals provides the basic iconographic arrangement followed subsequently by other Sri Lankan Buddhist vihara painters. Paintings show a highly tasteful use of a variety of colours and a skilful depiction of facial expressions.
Most paintings of the Polonnaruwa period have not survived, although they were done during a time much later than the paintings of the Anuradhapura period. One reason is that most of these paintings were not done on protective cave walls. They were done on brick walls, over plaster made of brick and lime. South Indian Tamil invasions resulted in the destruction of Buddhist temples and other important buildings such as palaces where Buddhist paintings were found. In the early 13th century, pillaging of shrines and monuments, setting fire to temples, monasteries, palaces and books were rampant during the 21 year occupation of Polonnaruwa by the ruthless Kalinga Magha of South India.
With the exclusion of some of the Sigiriya paintings, a good part of the surviving ancient paintings of the Classical Period are found in fragmentary form. Forces of nature led to the decay and disintegration of some, but many were destroyed when foreigners invaded Sinhala kingdoms. Among places with fragmentary evidence are: Sithulpahuwa (2nd C. BC), Karambagala (2nd C. BC), Mihintale ( 3rd to 2nd C. BC), Vesagiriya (5th C. AD), Hindagala (a few 4th C. to 8th C. AD), Dimbulagala-Pulligoda (5th to 7th C. AD), Mahiyangana (7th to 9th C. AD), Medirigiriya (11th to 13th C.).
During the early to middle part of the 20th Century, some paintings of the classical period were reproduced on canvass and these are on display at national museums in Colombo, Mahanuwara (Kandy), Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
The Period of Changing Capitals
The 400 year period from mid 13th to 17th C. was marked by several relocations of the Capital City – Dambadeniya, Yapawwa, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte. This was a time of political instability which had negative impact on people’s artistic initiatives. The required royal patronage was not readily forthcoming like before. Therefore the production of works of art faced difficulties. This was a time when ruthless South Indian invaders plundered local settlements and inflicted widespread damage to Buddhist temples and monasteries, where most works of art were concentrated. Although painting activity was not as prolific as during the Classical period, a collection of spectacular paintings from this period can be found in a few vihares in the hill country. Also, some exquisite decorative paintings of ancient ola (palm-leaf) book covers and breathtakingly elaborate paintings on textiles referred to as “pethikada paintings” were popular during this period.
Mahanuwara was the Capital City during the 18th to 19th C. The large assortment of paintings of this period display a unique tradition and are a deviation from the classical Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa style. These diverse paintings exhibit a predominantly stylized form, referred to by art professionals as “abstract symbolism”. It is a unique art form of great appeal, with its own dynamics and structural properties. These colourful stylized paintings are found in more than 300 temples. Some of these 300 temples were built during earlier periods and were restored during the Mahanuwara period. While some paintings of this period are well preserved, others are in various stages of decay and disintegration. The paintings of the Dalada Maligawa are among the earliest paintings of this period. In general paintings of this period show several stylistic variations in different parts of the country, the most significant being those of Southern Sri Lanka, where paintings show a distinctive character and are referred to as paintings of the “Southern School”. Both the Southern School and the “Mahanuwara Proper or the Hill Country School” used similar techniques, but it can be noted that the Southern School murals were painted with elaborate detail and vibrant colour. Also, some of the paintings of the Southern School reflect the influence of western art traditions. Mulgirigala, Totagamuwe Thelwatte, Kataluwe Purvaramaya, Kande Vihare, Dodanduwe Sailabimbaramaya, and Karagampitiye Subodharamaya are among prominent sites with paintings that belong to the Southern School, whereas the painting traditions of “Mahanuwara Hill Country Proper” are best evident in the Dalada Maligawa, Dambulla, Degaldoruwa, Medawela, Suriyagoda, Ridee Vihara, Hindagala, Danagirigala, Araththana and Dembawa to name a few.
This period includes the latter part of the British colonial period and the period following political independence of Sri Lanka. Sites with enchanting modern paintings are the famous Kelani Raja Maha Vihare, Bellanwila Vihare and the Gotami Vihare. As far as Buddhist paintings are concerned, the best known artists of the modern period are Solius Mendis (of Kelaniya fame), George Keyt (Borella Gotami Vihare) , Somabandhu Vidyapathy (Bellanwila), Upananda Gunawardena (Hiroshima Peace Vihare), M Sarlis, S.P. Charles, L.T.P. Manjusri, and Albert Dharmasiri.
Considering the infinitely rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, it is no surprise that contemporary art in Sri Lanka is ever more complex and engaging.
Modern artists, unlike their predecessors of earlier periods, do not belong to, or claim to belong to “gurukula” or traditional schools/groups/families of art with an art tradition peculiar to them. They are on their own, with individual approaches and techniques, influenced by both Eastern and Western art traditions. Paintings of ancient artists, particularly those of the classical Anuradhapura-Polonnaruva period, clearly reflect the strong inspiration drawn by the artist from the Buddha’s life and teachings. The strong influence of Buddhist values on artist’s perspectives and approaches to Buddhist paintings is evident in their work. This is reflected in the impact that their paintings have on people. Their work evoke serene joy and soothing emotions that are reflective of Buddhist values. With some significant exceptions such as Kelaniya, Bellanwila and the new Dalada Maligawa Annex, most Buddhist paintings of modern times appear to lack that strong spiritual stance or a Buddhist perspective. They definitely are fascinating, but often fail to evoke feelings of serene joy and inner calm that ancient paintings inevitably generate.
Several modern artists and photographers have contributed to the conservation of ancient paintings that were disintegrating, by producing near-perfect reproductions on canvass and some commendable photographic reproductions. S.P. Charles and Manjusri are prominent among these artists. Their reproductions are exhibited in several Public Museums in Sri Lanka.
A noticeable decline in indigenous cultural and artistic pursuits was observed during a greater part of the European colonial period from early 16th to mid 20th centuries. During the British period, it was fashionable to have framed pictures of the British royalty hanging on walls of not only public buildings but also in homes of local people. It was during this time in early 20th century that M. Sarlis was courageous in taking the initiative to produce and popularize pictures of his Buddhist paintings. These framed Buddhist pictures soon became very popular, and began to replace those of the British royalty in most homes.
Photographic images of the following sites have been used for purposes of our Exhibitions and related Presentations.
The Classical Period: 3rd C.BC. to 13th C.AD.
It is important to note that some of the following sites contain paintings that belong to both Classical and Mahanuwara periods.
Tivanka Pilimage - Polonnaruva
Galvihare – Polonnaruva
The Period of Changing Capitals: 13th to 17th Century
Yapawwa (often erroneously referred to as Yapahuwa)
Mahanuwara (Kandy) Period: 18th to 19th Century
Dambadeni Raja Maha Vihare
Potgul Vihara and Palace, Hanguranketa
Vaagama Vihara, Hanguranketa
Gangaramaya – Levalla - Mahanuwara
Suriyagoda Rajamaha Viharaya
Siripana Vihara, Moneragala
Kasagala Viharaya – Monaragala
Kelani Rajamaha Viharaya
Kande Vihare - Aluthgama
Kotte Rajamaha Viharaya
Kumara Rajamaha Viharaya Dodanduwa
Tunmahal Viharaya Gintota
Mirissa Rajamaha Vihare
Karagampitiye Subodharamaya - Dehiwela
The Modern Period: 20th Century Onwards
Kelani Raja Maha Vihare
Gotami Vihare - Borella
Gangaramaya - Peliyagoda
Asokaraamaya and Isipathanaraamaya – Colombo
Gangodawila Subhadrarama Atula Viharaya